Harold McGee is no slouch when it comes to the science of cooking and the chemistry of food. He wrote what many consider to be the source for accessible information on the science behind cooking and food, unsurprisingly called On Food And Cooking. He also writes an occasional column for the New York Times, and today’s topic is particularly interesting: water as an ingredient.
He uses booze and coffee as examples, but his discussion of coffee is too much, even for a food geek like me. I love coffee, but I have limited patience for the hundreds of different varieties of coffee, and the equally absurd number of flavors that people claim to taste. And, I like my coffee very strong and with cream and sugar. Yes, I am a coffee troglodyte; so what else is new?
Booze, however, is near and dear to my heart, and I’ll ramble interminably about the complexity of my favorite bourbon or Barossa Valley Shiraz. McGee discusses the effects of dilution on alcoholic drinks: how the dilution mellows the sharpness of the alcohol and allows other interesting flavors to emerge. But he doesn’t discuss something that I have been thinking about for a while; alcohol is hydrophylic, which means that it likes water. In fact, alcohol likes water more than it likes alcohol, so drinks will absorb water very quickly. I think that’s why stirring or shaking a mixed drink in ice improves taste so much. Obviously it chills the liquid, but the alcohol is busily absorbing water from the ice and becoming mellow and smooth.
Try a little experiment. Chill a shot of straight vodka and taste it side by side with another shot that you have shaken in ice. I have tried this and it is a very interesting contrast.
So what’s my point, and is it any different than McGee’s? Alcohol’s propensity to absorb lots of water changes the mouth-feel or texture of the drink, even though the alcohol is not being diluted very much. McGee talks about diluting to half or less of the original alcohol concentration. A martini shaken in ice absorbs nowhere near that much water, but the little water that it does absorb changes the drink tremendously, and for the better.
I think I’ll do a little experimenting to figure out exactly how much water a typical drink absorbs in the shaker. That should be fun, because I am frugal and would never waste the samples.